My First Camping Trip Was Kind of A Huge Disaster
I've been very lucky in most of my travels. I haven't been stranded anywhere I felt unsafe. I haven't been dead broke, or had any major medical complications that precluded me from flying home. I haven't been robbed, and even if I were, that could be okay.
In travel, many problems can be solved by being flexible, by letting go of expectations, making things work, or by simply throwing money at a problem.
My first time camping,
my first trip to a National Park.
I was really excited for my trip to Joshua Tree. It was my first time camping, and my first trip to a National Park. The park was beautiful, and it turns out that camping, especially car camping, really isn't the huge feat I had made it out to be in my head. Careful planning and strategic packing can take a lot of the uncertainty out of the game.
(I personally have anxiety around food. I'm a picky, healthy eater with food allergies, and for me, having good healthy food is essential to a positive experience.)
So, while I don't want to spend this post complaining...
I do want to highlight the ways in which my
trip went badly, & a few lessons that even
this seasoned traveler could have learned from.
As a preface, Joshua Tree is an incredibly beautiful park. In my next post I'll be delving into the highlights of my overall disastrous trip.
Now... on to the juicy part! A high school friend of mine... (lets call him Kyle) lives in LA, and, as I described in my previous post "Prepping for Your (My) First Camping Trip" we decided to spend 3 days camping at Joshua Tree together.
Kyle has not been in LA for very long, and he's had trouble making friends. He asked if he could invite another friend, Alfred, to join us. I told Kyle this was fine with me. He should have local friends, and I wanted to support him in that endeavor.
Foreshadowing: this was a mistake. I should have first peppered Kyle with questions like "How well do you know this person?" "Are they mentally stable?" "Are they an asshole and/or an alcoholic?" I naturally assumed Kyle would not suggest someone like this; apparently, not everyone has the best judgment.
Kyle and I left LA around 6:30 am to drive to Alfred's house, and we loaded into Alfred's pickup truck for the 2 - 3 hour drive to Joshua Tree National Park. Upon arriving at the park's information center we learn that all the camping in the park is full. Everything I read had said that as long as you arrive early on a Friday, you're fine.
Apparently, the internet is wrong.
The very sweet Park Ranger explained that in the past year, attendance in National Parks has increased about 8%, with Joshua Tree seeing a jump from 2 million visitors in 2015 to 2.5 million in 2016 (Wow). Additionally, this week was Spring Break for public schools, so lots of families and college kids had shown up during the week. On top of that, the wild flowers has just bloomed. In order to stay in the park, we would have had to make a reservation, or show up on Wednesday or Thursday.
The Ranger gave us a piece of paper with overflow camping options, and talked us through it. We ended up at the Joshua Tree Lake Campground, roughly 3 miles from the National Park. I think we were all disappointed (I certainly was), but tried to make the best of it and maintain a spirit of adventure. The Campground was mostly a barren space with fire pits, but the area near Reception was really adorable and friendly. I am obligated to add - there are flush toilets - and showers!
If you want to read more about the increasing popularity of our National Park,
here's a read I enjoyed:
After selecting/claiming a campsite, we drove over to the National Park for lunch and hiking. We went to the Black Rock Campground, had lunch, and were advised on nearby hikes by the Park Ranger. I must say...every Park Ranger I met seemed like they were in love with their job. They were patient and delighted to talk to visitors. We did a relatively short hike, which was fine with me. We were at altitude, and I had just finished up a round of super antibiotics, so I was lacking my usual pep.
The hike was beautiful. So many flowers. Everything was green, white and purple. I felt really lucky to get to see such a wonderful thing. Afterward, we checked out some big rocks, and Kyle went scrambling up. Alfred and I stayed lower down, and he told me about how stressful his life is, how he's coming out of a depression, how he feels lost. I did what any decent person would do; I listened to him, and asked kind, relevant questions. In hindsight, kindness can be its own sort of mistake.
We went back to the campground and started settling in. I prepped food, the boys set up the tents, It turned out that we weren't exactly well equipped for fire making (and I packed so much stuff!!!!) and it's hard to roast kebabs in a barrel where the fire is all the way deep at the bottom. Also, we had very little lighter fluid. And no charcoal. Just a decorative long burn brick for fireplaces, made of compressed chemicals and not recommended anywhere near items you are putting in your body.
Luckily, this town knows their tourism market, and there is a huge Home Depot just outside the park. Alfred and I made a quick run, and when we returned, Kyle had started a fire. We speared the vegetables and steak onto kebabs, grilled happily, and set the table. We broke out bottle of wine and a few beers, and had a delicious dinner as the sun set.
By 10:30 I was ready to fall asleep. The stars, the wine, the early morning and long day had all successfully lulled me to drowsiness. Alfred opened some Scotch or Port and insisted on a group toast before bed. I didn't want to drink, but took a ceremonial sip, then retired to the tent I was supposed to share with Kyle.
So far, my first camping experience was going pretty well.
I woke up at 12:30 to Alfred ranting and raving a few feet from my tent. I called out to see if everything was okay and was greeted with the following response, "Don't you fuckin' come out here."
I waited 3 minutes, then walked out to find the boys supremely fucked up. Alfred was like a belligerent zombie, moving around the campsite and ranting and raving while Kyle followed him. As I walked over to them, it was immediately clear that I would not be physically safe within a few feet of Alfred. I am amazed no one called them out at this point; I can only guess that the in between parts of the campground were dark enough that no one cared.
Eventually Alfred tired himself out; I guess being an angry fucked-up zombie can be exhausting. He walked into his truck, bumped into it hard, sort of slid to the ground, and decided to go to sleep. It was cold, so I tucked his sleeping bag over him, and put his pillow near his head. I wouldn't particularly call this an act of kindness, more the relief of"you have finally gone to bed" and "I don't want to worry about you dying of hypothermia."
Alfred is a suicide counselor, and his job is very stressful. He'd had a challenging year in his personal life. And decided it would be a good idea to go into the desert and get fucked up. His mangled consciousness kept telling me he was was "so sorry for me", which made no sense until Kyle told me that Alfred had decided he was the man for me. Apparently he had misinterpreted my polite interest in his his struggles, as he discussed them during the hike, as some sort of romantic interest. A man I had known for 12 hours, who knew I was in a relationship, and whose behavior was a complete disaster. If you were wondering, this is a good example of how rape culture can manifest in our everyday lives.
Once Alfred was asleep, it became evident that Kyle was far from sober. Kyle kept trying to tell me what a great guy Alfred was (good luck selling me on his merits at this point) and reminded me of how important our friendship was, basically going into "asshole light" mode. After hours of this, he settled down to sleep under the stars, and I returned to my tent.
Guys, it gets even better.
Minutes later, I was greeted by the sound of Kyle vomiting, all over his sleeping bag and hoodie. I went out to check on him, handed him some paper towels, a trash bag, and Lysol wipes. He continued to tell me "how sorry he feels for me."
He feels sorry for me? It seemed completely absurd; I was (and am) very happy in my current life, thank you very much, and furthermore, was not in the mood for his unsolicited opinion. I am not the one who hated themself so thoroughly that they couldn't bear to be alone with their thoughts, that they couldn't fall asleep in a quiet, beautiful place under the stars.
He cleaned up nothing, started to yell at me,
and found the end of my compassion.
After stating "Shut up and Go to Sleep" roughly 700 times, a stranger came over and threatened to call the Sheriff if we didn't shut our "drunk asses up." I pointed out my current sobriety, which seemed not to matter much to the complainant.
I went back into my tent, and heard Kyle throwing up again. I stayed in my tent. I set boundaries.
I decided to pack up my things and slip out at first light.
I didn't want to waste the next day waiting for the boys to wake up, covered in vomit and hung over, and then drive back to LA with them. I had no compassion for them, and no desire to spend time in their company. They were men in their 30s, one of whom I had known less than a day, and they were most certainly not my responsibility.
Deciding to leave felt right - actually doing it felt amazing. I slept for about 2 hours - from 3:30 am to 5:30 am. I woke up, packed my things and a day's worth of of food, booked a car on autoslash.com and left with the sunrise. I walked over to the lake next to Reception, threw down my mat and did some sun salutations while I waited for them to open. I took a cab to Enterprise Rent a Car, rented a little Buick, and returned for a day of hiking in Joshua Tree, alone.
And I had a wonderful day. In comparison to the night I had just had, everything was wonderful. The car rental people were wonderful, the park was wonderful, and leaving a toxic situation felt so good.
Being Alone & in Charge of my
Own Destiny was Wonderful.
What was the cost of getting out?
One Way 4 Day Car Rental: $330 + Gas
One Night at a Decent Hotel: $163 + $18 Parking
It wasn't cheap, but I'm happy I left. I spent the night at the cheapest decent hotel I could find last minute on Kayak (the Hilton, in Long Beach Cali). I was pretty exhausted, and knew I needed a little pampering. I spent that night networking with friends to find another place to stay for the rest of my LA time; an NYC girlfriend connected me with one of her friends to house me for the remaining 3 days, and I am still incredibly grateful. I'm starting to really believe in the sisterhood.
I want to be clear on something - I have no problem with alcohol or drugs, and fully believe that people are capable of making their own choices. That said, this experience was not the one I had envisioned with Kyle and not one I was interested in having at this time, with these people.
You learn a lot about people when you go camping.
Have an exit strategy.
Always have a little money set aside for when things go badly (because they will, inevitably)
Ask lots of questions when people are joining your adventures.
Be clear about your expectations of a trip with your travel buddies.
Don't be afraid to have adventures alone. (I had never been camping before, and totally could have done it alone)